Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stamps, express mail and works of art

How often do you find yourself going to the post office lately? If you're like me, it's a fairly rare occurrence, especially now that I do most of my correspondence and bill paying electronically. Mostly, I'm there to ship something I sold on eBay, or maybe I'm sending hard-copy writing samples via express mail.

I have to admit that when I have time to spare, I rather enjoy going to the post office in my small town. It's old-timey and maintains that feeling of permanence you want in a government building, which so many newer buildings lack. Take a look at the higher reaches inside the lobby area of an older post office, and chances are you'll see some vintage murals. Depending on the location, you might see colonial history, idyllic local scenery, or maybe heroic representations of New Jersey industry.

These murals were the product of a convergence of economic hardship, government stimulus and artistic trends in the 1930s. Art - and artists - tend to suffer in poor economies, and the Great Depression was no exception. Among the 'alphabet soup' bureaus created under the Roosevelt Administration were the Federal Art Project, Public Works of Art Project and the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture, all designed to provide work opportunities to artists while improving public buildings. Murals were particularly popular, as the Italian Renaissance fresco style had come to the fore during the Roaring 20s. Most showed more traditional styles, idealizing American values in the communities where they were housed. They didn't just put the unemployed to work, they help to tell the stories of our past and expose us to fine art at the same time. Nationally, more than 5000 jobs were created through the art programs. In New Jersey alone, nearly 50 post offices were graced with their work.

I do wonder about the veracity of some of the scenes, though. The recently-restored mural at the Cranford Post Office, for example, is purported to depict the Battle of Cranford, a skirmish I've yet to hear of. Yes, troops were cantoned along the Rahway River in the town, but it's not likely they actually fought on town soil. I'm sure the mural has built community pride in our colonial forebears, perhaps it's at the price of accuracy.

These days, the murals have likely lost their meaning for many people who see them, but they're worth a look. When they were first installed, they showed a vision of the best of a prosperous and hopeful America. Today, they show the optimism of a people in the depths of economic despair, a people who would enjoy a level of prosperity within a generation.

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